Parents of children in chronically failing schools would get greater power to force the schools to change, including the possibility they could make the school into a charter school or contract its management out, under a bill that advanced Tuesday in the House.
Under current law, Florida public schools labeled as “chronically failing” by the state and federal government face several choices for how they can try to improve, under a system put in place to meet the federal “No Child Left Behind.” But currently, it’s the school district that drives the decision on how the school should be dealt with. It submits a plan–though the law sets out several choices for things that can be done–to state education officials.
Under a bill moving in both chambers of the Legislature, if improvement doesn’t happen within a year, parents could dictate what will happen, if 51 percent of them agree, though they still would be limited to certain options laid out in federal law, and the plan would be subject to Department of Education approval.
The parents could force the school district to transfer students to other schools; close the school and re-open it as a charter school with a new governing board running it; or contract with an outside management group to run it, for example.
“Anywhere in our communities where schools are struggling, parents have continued to come forward and say they want to have a role in the revitalization of a school and in making the education in their community better for all students, not just their own,” said Senate bill sponsor Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.
The idea for a parent trigger bill for changing school management emerged in Florida last year when it was pushed by Michelle Rhee, former Washington D.C. schools chancellor who was an informal advisor to new Gov. Rick Scott.
This year it appeared in a version of the governor’s legislative agenda.
The idea for the parent trigger comes from California, where two years ago that state’s legislature passed a similar bill giving parents in a failing school a majority vote on whether to turn it into a charter school.
One of the early backers of the bill was Shirley Ford.
“Fifty-one percent is a high bar. So if you have 51 percent of anyone doing anything in any community, especially in a community where schools are failing, that’s speaking to the power, that’s speaking to the fact that parents are sick and tired of the failure, and we need to make a change,” said Ford, who is a senior advisor with Parent Revolution-the group that created and backed the original parent-trigger bill, which is now starting to pop up in a number of states.
But critics say the measures pit parents against parents, and parents against school districts.
In California, “It wasn’t a formula for school improvement at all, it was more a formula for shutting the school down and turning it over to private communities,” said Rita Solnet, a former Parent-Teacher Association president, who is also a founder of the group Parents Across America, which opposes such laws. “When I say it was a catastrophic failure, it just created enormous hostility and conflict within communities.”
Solnet says the Florida version of the parent trigger law is better than the California model, but her group is still opposed to it.
Another opponent of the bill is the Florida Parent-Teacher Association. Jean Hovey, the association’s president, calls the measures a thinly-veiled attempt to privatize schools. She also says the bill doesn’t address why schools fail, and why some parents choose to sit out of the education process.
“There are lots of ways to get parents involved, you need to find out why they aren’t coming to the school, maybe it’s a language or a cultural barrier,” said Hovey. “There are avenues to work with the school district. And one of them is not, as this bill says, to ‘pull the trigger’ and turn the school over to a charter school.”
Only a few Florida school districts have elected to turn their failing schools into charters under the current system, where the district gets the say. Most have chosen to switch out school administrators and provide the school with extra money.
Supporters of the bill, which is backed by the Foundation for Florida’s Future, former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education lobbying group, say the goal is to get parents involved, not spark dissent. They note that in other states with parent-trigger laws, like Texas and Mississippi, there was bi-partisan support. And in a press conference Tuesday about the bill, former State Sen. Al Lawson, a Democrat, backed the bill as well.
“I am convinced that with this bill, that we are going to solve a major problem,” said Lawson. “And that is that you are going to give parents the responsibility to be more involved in their kids’ education and to empower them to help move a school in a direction that they need to go.”
The proposals, Senate Bill 1718 and House Bill 1191 also call for children assigned to teachers with poor evaluations to receive a high performing teacher the next school year. And it informs parents that they have the right to request a copy of their child’s teacher evaluation, and gives a virtual school option to students with ineffective or out of field teachers. It also calls on districts not to assign poor teachers to already failing schools.
The bills cleared their first committee stops in the House and Senate Tuesday. The House bill was approved 11-3 in the House K-20 Innovation Subcommittee, and now goes to Rulemaking and Regulation.
The Senate version was approved unanimously Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee and goes to the Budget Committee next.
–News Service of Florida